I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer.
I can’t say I envy those who say they have found their purpose in life. I don’t mean the ones who have managed to work out what they want to do for a career and then made a success of it. No, people like that are lucky compared to the rest of us who manage to give off an air of knowing what we are doing, make it look like it’s what we aimed for, while secretly living in fear of being found out. I’m talking about the ones who believe they have realised the meaning of their lives, why they have been put here.
I once knew a young woman who had given birth to a cruelly disabled and sick baby whose condition was so rare, limited medical help was available. She dedicated herself to her daughter’s short life and went on to promote awareness of the condition to be able to raise funds for research. I was humbled by her conviction that she had been sent a daughter in whose name the campaign was founded and that the purpose of both their lives was clear. Humbled; not envious.
What if your calling, your raison d’etre, has to work harder to convince you? Is it still genuine? Worse, what if you are pulled in its direction, but don’t want to go that way? Or don’t trust you are up to the mark? Fear of failure could prevent you from fulfilling the ultimate objective by which your time spent on earth is divinely measured. Would you be sent back down to learn your lesson or punished in some way?
The only careers interview I remember having at school was a ten minute audience with the Latin teacher who asked each of us in turn which university we would be applying for. She ‘advised’ me to be a teacher which I dismissed as unimaginative coming from an out- of-touch, elderly lady at the end of her working life spent educating girls in the vocabulary and grammar of an archaic language. I rebelled by studying Business and Finance – I know, shocking. But then, years later, I retrained as a teacher and it was the best career decision I have ever made. It took a little longer for my ‘calling’ to find me, I suppose. That’s if it is a calling; I just think it’s what I want to do.
I didn’t want to be the person sitting next to the person diagnosed with cancer. I was compelled to be there by love and loyalty. Someone has to be in that seat. Someone has to remain calm enough to be able to listen to the words the doctor says after he says the word cancer, when all the patient can hear is white noise. Someone has to find a pen and make notes of the unfamiliar codes, abbreviations and terms to be able to google them afterwards. Someone has to drive the shocked patient home. Someone has to say, ‘We can deal with this, ‘I’m right here,’ and ‘you can count on me.’
Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy.
I didn’t imagine I would be sitting in that seat again some years later and then again for a third time. Why was this horror coming after the people so close and so precious to me, one after another? I wondered if it could even be some vicious punishment for something I had done, something I hadn’t done right, or something I should have done. Then I thought perhaps my purpose was to be the cancer fairy. Was I up to it? Could I pick a different one?
When cancer chose my mother, she drew on her faith to give her strength. I stood beside her in church and sang each hymn loudly to show I was fully participating while secretly railing at God, in my head, for testing someone so good in this way.
When cancer picked my closest friend, I did my best to amuse her at seemingly endless, dignity-stripping appointments. ‘How can I help you?’ met with, ‘Two gin and tonics and a table by the window please.’
‘How are you?’
‘Well, I’ve got a bit of a tummy-ache, but it’s my friend you should be asking.’
And, ‘On a scale of 1 – 10, what’s your pain level?’
‘She’s clearly just attention-seeking.’
Soon after that, I sat next to Drew, my life-partner, when he heard cancer had come for him. I promised I wasn’t going anywhere, but I couldn’t find anything to try and joke about in anything cancer brings with it anymore.
And then a colleague told me she needed me. She said she didn’t like to burden me after what I’d been going through, but she’d been diagnosed with cancer, knew nothing about it and didn’t know who to turn to. I didn’t hesitate. ‘We can deal with this,’ I told her, ‘I’m right here and you can count on me.’
Personal pronouns make a difference – something else my Latin teacher knew before me.